Thursday, April 30, 2015

My favorite drought tolerant plants

Discussions of the drought in California seem to be getting uglier with every passing day.  Instead of focusing on the big picture as to how the state as a whole can best cope with severe drought conditions that could persist for decades, finger-pointing has become popular.  The agricultural industry took a lot of the heat at first, largely because the restrictions announced by our governor don't address agricultural water usage, which by most estimates accounts for 80% of California's water use.  More recent commentary has focused on wealthy communities, blaming their residents for "moral isolation" and flagrant water usage.  Under the draft regulations poised to take effect in June, such communities will experience the deepest cuts in water allotments.  My own community is one of those facing a 36% reduction.

I've been focused on water use almost since the moment we moved here 4 years ago.  Our current lot is slightly over half an acre, huge by comparison to the tiny lot I tended for 20 years in a nearby beach community and relatively large by Los Angeles standards in general.  When we moved in, more than one-third of the lot was covered in grass.  We began removing the turf in sections early on, although we still have 2 sections yet to go.

One of the 2 remaining segments of grass to be removed, what's left is largely crabgrass and assorted weeds


We voluntarily reduced our water use by more than the 20% requested by Governor Brown in 2014 by eliminating turf grass, making modifications to our irrigation system to reduce water to selected areas, and by swapping out more and more plants for drought tolerant varieties.  Will it be enough?  Possibly not, although my husband's study of our water use suggests it should be.  Still I can see that I'm going to lose plants that can't tolerate parched conditions over long periods.  But enough of our drought doldrums, the purpose of this post is to focus on the plants I've found most useful in handling dry conditions.

Foliage Plants

Agonis cognata 'Cousin Itt' has adapted well to dry conditions and even tree root competition, although it's a slow grower and appears to prefer partial shade over full sun (low water needs)

Agonis flexuosa 'Nana' always looks good (low water needs)

I added a couple more Artemisia 'Powis Castle' this winter and they're filling out well - the plant does get ratty-looking over time but it responds well to pruning (low water needs)

Coleonema pulchellum 'Sunset Gold' produces small pink flowers but its foliage is its biggest draw (moderate water required)

Planted last fall, Leptospermum 'Copper Glow' is still new to me but it appears to handle dryness with the aplomb of other plants in its genus (low water needs)

One of my all time favorite plants, Leucadendron 'Wilson's Wonder' is shown here sporting its summer (left) and winter (right) colors (low water needs)


Phormiums vary in terms of their water requirements but this one, probably P. tenax 'Atropurpureum', gets by with relatively little water or attention alongside the driveway

Stipa tenuissima has a reputation for rampant self-seeding but a low water diet (and regular haircuts) helps to keep it within bounds

Thymus serphyllum 'Minus' has done a good job as a groundcover between pathway stones (low to moderate water needs) 

Yucca 'Bright Star' is a slow-grower  but it has presence in the border (low water needs)


Flowering Plants

I hesitated about including Arctotis 'Pink Sugar' here as it struggled last summer but, with moderate water, I hope it'll maintain its good looks

Arthropodium cirratum doesn't look like a tough plant but it's a stellar performer in dry shade as long as you control snails and slugs (low to moderate water needs, depending upon degree of sun exposure)

Convolvulus sabatius is a good filler I need to use more (moderate water needs; tends to die back in summer here)

Dorycnium hirsutum (aka Hairy Canary Clover) looks good even when not in bloom (low water needs)

Gaillardia x grandiflora 'Goblin' self-seeds freely (moderate water needs)

Gazania rigens hybrids can really brighten up a space (moderate water needs)

Grevilleas are stars when it comes to low water requirements - G. 'Peaches & Cream' bloom shown on the left and G. 'Superb' on the right

Grevillea lavandulcea 'Penola' is another low water user with an exceptionally long bloom period 

Limonium perezii, usually offered here in 6-packs, provides a lot of bang for the buck and, when it gets too ratty to rejuvenate, it's easily replaced (low to moderate water needs)

Solanum xanti 'Mountain Pride', a California native, is my best find in the past year - I recently scooped up 3 more, which I hope can get themselves established before summer arrives with a vengeance (low water needs)



Succulents

Aeoniums of all kinds love it here - many can be propagated by simply snipping a rosette and portion of stalk and pushing it into the soil (low water needs; may go dormant in summer, especially in full sun with little or no water)

Agave attenuata does best with some shade during the hottest part of the day (low water needs)

One of the more compact Agaves, 'Blue Glow' is one of my favorites (low water needs)

Agave ovatilfolia (aka Whale's Tongue Agave) is said to grow bigger faster with extra water but mine gets by with little

Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire' deserves more space in my garden than it's been given - it's become almost too popular here, rivaling Agapanthus with its ubiquitous presence (low water needs)

Senecio cylindricus is another succulent I can cut and simply stick in the ground


If you have a low water needs plant you like, please share!

For those of you that are interested I've added a number of links to information on California's drought in the right-hand side-bar of my blog.  Work is pending to remove the remaining lawn here.  Additional, extra-large rain collection barrels are on order.  And a mulch delivery is planned for next week when the weather cools.  Given that temperatures here have soared again, hitting 95F for 2 days in a row this week so far, I don't expect I'll do much more in the way of new planting until fall, when I hope to replace more of my drought-sensitive plants for more resilient ones like those I've presented here.


All material © 2012-2015 by Kris Peterson for Late to the Garden Party

32 comments:

  1. Just shows how many great looking, drought tolerant plants are out there. Much more worthy to have in ones plot over lawn.

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    1. Believe it or not, the lawn debate got front page coverage in the Los Angeles Times this morning. A spokesman for Miracle-Gro argued that lawn still has a place in western gardens. In contrast, a lawn critic, Michael Pollan, says that lawn is "indefensible" in face of the drought and that "we will one day look back on lawns like we now do littering, smoking in bars and public urination." Quite a statement!

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  2. You have so many drool-worthy plants it's hard to imagine why people cling to their lawns and more water-hungry plants. I'm planning on adding a lot of Ceanothus and Actostaphylos to my garden, and a few Leptospermum and Grevillea, too. You can grow a much wider selection of all of those genera than I can. And while I'm not a huge fan of agaves, I do love 'Blue Glow' and especially attenuata. I would love to have a big clump of Agave attenuata somewhere. How drought tolerant are Cistus for you? Oh, and Artemisia versicolor. I'm mildly obsessed with that plant right now and need to get my hands on it.

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    1. I haven't tried Artemisia versicolor but I'm definitely going to add that to my list, Evan. High Country Gardens carries it. Cistus does pretty well here - I currently have 2 but I crowded one of these (C. x pulverulentus 'Sunset') too much with other plants and it isn't looking its best. I should probably swap some of my thirstier white daisies for white Cistus.

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  3. Great selection of drought hardy plants! This drought must be heartbreaking, and it has been going on for so long.
    Even when I last drove from LA to SF along the I-5, all the farmers had their ripped up fruit/nut trees stacked for miles and miles along that highway with signs blaming congress....
    When Australia had the 10 yr drought, the plants that performed best were things like rosemary, many ground cover conifers, nandina domestica, also Australian native grass-like plants such as lomandra; the ever-popular westringia doesn't mind drought one bit and has dainty little blue flowers.
    Here's a list of plants that do well in Alice Springs; right in the dry heart of Australia (getting less than 10" of rain in most years and dealing with very high temperatures from spring to autumn, but colder winter nights than LA). It might be useful for a bit of inspiration, and the good thing is the list includes many exotics as well, so it will be possible to find these in LA: http://www.alicewateringplanner.com.au/alice-springs-plants/

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    1. Have saved the link - thanks, Matt! Looks like a lot of good plant ideas, some few of which I know I have seen available. Am particularly curious about the comment on Solanum ellipticum regarding its medicinal properties - it is "used for aboriginal toothaches." Does it work for any other type of toothache, I wonder... Joking aside, I am happy to see some plants recommended for heavier soils!

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    2. Thanks for the Alice Springs list, Matt! I'll add that to my "All About Water" resource list. I love Lomandra and don't know why I neglected to include it in my post - at current count I have 17 of them! I also have 2 Westringia but I see 'Morning Light' in my future. I should have mentioned that I was lucky in that I inherited some some drought tolerant trees, like Arbutus 'Marina' and Agonis flexuosa, and shrubs like Nandina and rosemary, with the house. I've put prostrate rosemary and also Myoporum in my dry garden but more of both may be on order when the remaining grass comes out.

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  4. Wonderful collection, Kris.

    I would like to add some more links that I think became available after you posted this.

    Don't tear out your lawn NOW, and other counterintuitive drought advice
    http://www.scpr.org/programs/offramp/2015/04/30/42647/don-t-tear-out-your-lawn-now-and-other-counterintu/
    "Consider plants from South Africa, Australia and the Canary Islands that are drought tolerant and work well in many more microclimates." This is just what you, Kris, have shown us.

    The video has only one or two paragraphs more than the text printed here. It mentions this website
    Australian Succulents
    http://australiansucculents.com/

    The last paragraph in the video, though, tells us to consider this a unique oppportunity to develop a southern California style of gardening rather than a copy of the east coast style.

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    1. Thanks for your links too, Jane! I expect I'll be holding off on any more planting until the fall, although I may get the lawn taken out earlier as we want to lay more stone paths before we plant in the fall.

      McDonough also underscores a point I always make in discussing native plants: "native to California" doesn't mean a plant will make it in all locations within California. Las Pilitas Nursery is good about providing information on which natives are suitable to which conditions. Research helps but the ultimate test is experience in working with one's own garden.

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  5. Your attitude is amazing, in fact all of my California blogging friends are so strong and positive! The garden will continue, just in an altered state. Your list has quite a few plants on it that I'd love to grow in my garden, drought or not drought.

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    1. My outlook on the drought and the water restrictions has gone up and down a lot, Loree. My husband and I have even had several discussions about moving to the PNW. I know there's some drought up that way too but there's drought and then there's DROUGHT. The biggest issue for me has been the virulent negativity and nastiness of some people in responding to our drought. I'm very sensitive to our water concerns but I don't want to live here if someone's going to second guess me every time I turn on the hose to water my garden.

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  6. I think tiny Tetraneuris acaulis should certainly be added to the low water needs list - I can't believe how much it gives with how little water - so far, at any rate! And why not have another yellow daisy ;-) The pictures I've seen from you and others of Arthropodium cirratum are enough to make me create a bit more shade in the garden so I can grow it! Your Stipa looks great! I'd love to try some Agonis, but it looks pretty doubtful here ;( I should add that the Eremophilas I've planted have never shown any signs of stress so far, and "Valentine" at least seems to be used for street plantings here - surely a sign of good heat and drought-tolerance?? Also popular, not to mention spectacular, are low-water needs Caesalpinia mexicana and C. gilliesii, which are listed for Sunset zones 18-24 as well as inland low desert. One of our neighbors has a rather daring foundation planting of alternating magenta bougainvillea and orange-scarlet C. mexicana; I find it quite attractive!!

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    1. A yellow daisy that I haven't grown! I certainly must remedy that oversight, Amy. Thanks for this and your other suggestions. I picked up an Eremophila (yellow-flowering variety, unspecified species) at my local botanic garden's spring sale a couple of week's ago. While the recent spate of spring heatwaves we've experienced don't make this the most opportune time to plant, the plant seems to be doing well thus far. Re the Caesalpinias: I've admired those I've seen in the nurseries but their price tags and size have always scared me off.

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    2. I'm surprised that Caesalpinias are only sold large and expensive there... Mail order might be a good option for finding smaller plants as they seem to be handled by nurseries across the SW.

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  7. Lots of pretty plants, Kris, but your "Cousin Itt" is amazing--the best I've ever seen.

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    1. I thought I was pushing my luck when I planted the first 'Cousin Itt' under that tree, Emily, but it and the 2 that followed have settled in and thrived, although they weren't particularly good-looking during their adolescence. I'm laying odds that the other 5 I've planted elsewhere will also outgrow their current scruffy states.

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  8. While we get more rain in Central Texas than you do in a typical year, we haven't had a typical year here for a very long time. The designation "drought tolerant" has become a real selling point for nursery selections. I respectfully suggest everyone look into using native plants for your region, as they all evolved to flourish with available rainfall over the years. Natives provide benefits to local birds and pollinators, all of whom are stressed right along with gardens and gardeners. I'm betting there is enough variety within the native plant community to give you a lovely garden, hopefully one that won't face significant constriction as supplemental watering becomes difficult to justify. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing what gardening with Southern California natives will look like as it happens with your competent guidance!

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    1. There's a lot of variety among the California natives offered for sale and, while some of the native nurseries (like Las Pilitas) offer guidance on what should work in a given area, most here do not so buyers have to be careful. The microclimates in an urban environment like ours also complicate matters. Climate change here, especially the increasingly warm winters and unseasonably early heatwaves, makes it more difficult to apply the limited guidance available on appropriate native plant selections as well. I'd argue that what grew here in the early days of the last century may no longer be suitable to the conditions we face now - much of LA is one big heat sink. That said, I think natives have a place in the garden where they're viable but I also feel it's appropriate to utilize Mediterranean plants and succulents that have shown themselves to be adapted to the conditions we currently face. I have a number of California natives in my garden already, including Baccharis pilularis, Carpenteria californica, Ceanothus, Dudleya, Festuca californica, Galvezia speciosa, Heteromeles arbutifolia (the official native plant of LA!), Heuchera maxima, Ribes, Solanum xanti, and Trichostema lanatum.

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  9. You are to be commended for your responsible use of drought-tolerant plants and your conscientious efforts to reduce your water needs. It's unfortunate that not all Californians share your attitude. I imagine that people are generally more careful now than they were when I lived in southern California 45 years ago and was appalled by the sight of automatic irrigation systems pumping out water even as streets flooded from fall rains.
    I am fortunate to live and garden in a water-rich region of the country (glacial landscape covered with lakes, ponds and rivers and many large underground aquifers), but even here, people are beginning to pay more attention to water issues -- especially because we export water (I am just a few miles from the home of the Poland Spring bottled water company) and realize that we will be under increasing pressure to export more of our water as fresh drinking water becomes scarce in other parts of the country and the world. -Jean

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    1. Oh, there are still people that are oblivious - or perhaps in denial - about the water problem here, Jean. However, under the new regulations, I understand that people will be prohibited from irrigating within 48 hours of measurable rain, although I have no idea how that regulation will be enforced. Oddly, California too exports water! I understand that Crystal Geyser, Arrowhead, Aquafina, and Dasani all tap California water sources - how they're responding to the water crisis here, I haven't heard but it's further indication of the need for a comprehensive analysis and response to California's water problem.

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  10. California natives offer several benefits that are long-term: habitat creation - especially for butterflies that need a "larval host." For example - Thorne's Hairstreak lays its eggs on the beautiful, scented, evergreen Tecate Cypress. Additionally, this is what makes California "California" - a unique place. To see what grew where you live, type your address into this excellent resource: http://www.calscape.com and have fun learning about our heritage. While you are at it, grow a native edible!

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    1. Thanks for the link, Susan. I'll check it out.

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  11. I really admire the way you keep your garden looking so good in the terrible drought conditions. I love all the plants you have chosen.
    I have a Michael Pollan book: Second Nature which is a great book and explains the American fixation with lawns. I hope more people will listen to him and choose to garden like you do, with plants that look great and are suited to dry conditions.

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    1. Lawns are certainly under fire here but there are a lot of them, many already looking scruffy due to the combination of the early hear and water conservation. It'll be interesting to see how many of these come out in the next year. My husband and I are already working with a friend on plans for removal of his front and backyard lawns.

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  12. Kudos to you for being pro-active about the situation. It must be frustrating to deal with drought of that magnitude.

    The only thing I can suggest is to look at drought tolerant California natives. It seems like the best bet is to cultivate what grows naturally.

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    1. Even some of my natives are struggling. I've lost 3 Ceanothus this year and just discovered that a bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) I got from the local native plant conservancy 18 months ago suddenly failed. On the positive side, the Solanum is doing well!

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  13. Great list; I must look for the Solanum. Your plants in the front look so much better than a lawn. Aloes should not be overlooked as they provide food for bees and nectar loving birds. Lavenders of course. The dwarfs seem to last and look good many more years than the larger ones. Salvia leucantha and clevelandii, apiana...

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    1. The Solanum has done well here. I picked mine up, on both occasions, at Roger's. The flowers of 'Mountain Pride' have deeper color than the S. xanti I've seen in other nurseries.

      I put some of the smaller Aloes in the street-side succulent bed but they're struggling - I think they probably need a bit more water than I've given them thus far to get established there and I suspect I need to do more to improve the soil. I'm eyeing some of the larger Aloes for fall purchases, I've got some Salvia leucantha and clevelandii but I've earmarked another offered by Las Pilitas, S. 'Celestial Blue', for acquisition this fall.

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  14. You have a wealth of wonderful plants! I love Cousin It! It must be difficult to deal with your dry conditions, but you have responded creatively so that your garden is even more beautiful. Powis Castle is one of my favorites. It is flourishing in my front stone planter. I have to prune it regularly to keep it in size, but it does not seem to mind. I also have had it growing for years in the ground in a section of the front garden, and it does well there, as long as I keep it pruned. Otherwise, it gets lanky and bare in the middle.

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    1. I've had the same experience with Artemisia, Deb. Regular pruning is required to keep it looking good.

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  15. I love how you have changed your garden to help reduce water use; many of the plants are gorgeous but wouldn't stand my cold winters here. I think you have solved an identification issue for me. Ages ago I bought a plant from a plant fair, I asked the stand owner to write the names of the plants I had purchased but sadly he didn't do so, one was, I'm fiarly sure, Dorycnium hirsutum , so thank you.

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    1. I'm glad to be of help, Christina - if only by accident! The Dorycnium is a wonderful plant.

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